The race to the left for the 6th Congressional District had started taking shape, with nearly $1 million raised by the end of 2021 between the three early front-runners: Chapel Hill legislator Valerie Foushee, Wake County State Senator Wiley Nickel, and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam.
Local establishment Democrats seemed to coalesce early around Foushee, with Allam carving out a strong lane as a younger, progressive firebrand. Meanwhile, Wiley Nickel, a former Obama White House staffer, was amassing a war chest of more than $500,000 to dump into the race.
Enter 2003 American Idol runner-up musician Clay Aiken, whose campaign announcement Monday lit up social media and made national news.
The launch ad, which has already been watched more than a million times on Twitter, depicts a lightly aged and stockier Aiken, who sits on a stool and rattles off his progressive agenda: combating climate change and defending a woman’s right to choose.
But the real zinger comes at the end when Aiken takes aim at right-wing bigots Congressman Madison Cawthorn and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, whose faces appeared on a set of rainbow flags unfurled at the end of the three-minute video.
“Just think how excited these guys are going to be when we elect the South’s first gay congressman,” Aiken says with a chuckle. “Make them proud.”
This is not Aiken’s first political rodeo. In 2014, he won the Democratic primary nomination for the state’s 2nd Congressional District before losing in the general election to Republican Renee Ellmers. If elected this time around, Aiken would be the first openly LGTBQ+ person ever elected to Congress in North Carolina.
While he previously ran in a Republican-leaning district, the recently redrawn 6th Congressional District is solidly blue and will be decided in the primary. It’s also one of only two districts where a non-white candidate stands a chance to win. Aiken’s arrival considerably changes the game for the remaining candidates, whose campaign dollars will be stretched ever thinner as they battle to gain the same level of name recognition Aiken has enjoyed since his Idol days.
“With [Aiken] it could be a real scramble because all three of the candidates that were in the front-runner status beforehand weren’t that well known and now you have that outside force from [beyond] politics,” says Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic political consultant and Duke Sanford School of Public Policy professor. “It really scrambles the strategy because it has this fluid, almost destabilizing force.”
A celebrity jumping into the race rubbed some progressives the wrong way, including Durham City Council member and former mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero, who says she’s “not interested in that kind of representation.”
“It’s time we had representation that really symbolizes the future of the state, and the demographics of the state that are growing the fastest are the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the Latina community,” Caballero told the INDY on Monday. “I just think it would be a huge missed opportunity, and quite frankly I’m ready for someone who is young, and progressive, and a woman of color, and an immigrant.”
But some party loyalists disagree. While politics is a game to win, beyond Aiken’s reality TV fame, former political consultant Gary Pearce says he believes Aiken has the qualifications to be an effective politician.
Pearce helped Aiken with his 2014 primary campaign and says he’s still a supporter. He sees Aiken as the “antidote” to the MAGA-fueled Cawthorn-Robinson crowd rising in popularity in North Carolina politics.
“I think he has a lot of the qualities that David Price had and that will surprise people because of Clay’s background,” Pearce says. “But he’s a smart, serious, thoughtful person about politics and public policy.”
Aiken will also likely be a formidable fundraiser. He raised more than $285,000 in the 2104 primary and over $1 million in his bid against Ellmers. The other candidates will need to spend their funds on TV spots in the hopes of catching up to Aiken’s status as a household name.
“What Aiken does is ups the ante on money, simply so people can stay even or can reach the Aiken level,” McCorkle says. “Research would suggest that it’s not that you have to equal your opponent’s spending but you need to get an adequate floor.”
“If there was a primary today, I think Aiken would probably win on name recognition,” McCorkle added.
Still, it will be a long road to Election Day, with a decision from the courts expected Tuesday (after the INDY goes to print) on the gerrymandering lawsuits, which could further delay the primary. That will test Aiken’s staying power in the race. He’ll face more questions about his qualifications than other candidates, and in some ways, he’ll have more to prove.
“You could say there will be more time now for these candidates to prove that Aiken is not the right one; you could also say that it’s going to stretch their money even further out. So it can go either way, it seems to me, in terms of being positive or negative for the other candidate,” McCorkle says.
Monday’s announcement didn’t deter Allam, who says she’ll continue to campaign hard in the district to get her message across.
“We’re continuing to focus on meeting people where they’re at and making the case for a progressive with a track record of delivering wins for NC-6 families,” Allam told the INDY Monday. “We’re still the only campaign that has pledged not to take corporate PAC money, fossil fuel lobbyist money, or self-fund, and accountability to working people will always be my top priority.”
NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Nickel as a state representative.
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